Women can be sacked for wearing hijab in customer-facing jobs, highest EU court rules

Women are allowed to be sacked by employers for refusing to remove their hijabs, Europe’s highest court has ruled.

EU judges decreed that businesses can ban employees from wearing a headscarf under certain conditions if they need to do so to project an image of neutrality to customers.

They were asked to make a judgment on two German cases after two female employees – one a cashier and the other a support worker for children with special needs – were threatened with suspension for wearing the hijab.  

“A prohibition on wearing any visible form of expression of political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace may be justified by the employer’s need to present a neutral image towards customers or to prevent social disputes," said the EU court.

The EU Muslim Network has warned that the ruling could stoke Islamophobia in the EU.

Suliaman Wilms, who works for the organistion, told the Telegraph: “This judgment is a not just a blow against active, dynamic and working Muslim women, it’s the confirmation of an ongoing European trend to constrain the religious expression of their faith and spiritual life praxis.”

The European Anti-Racism Network has also criticised the ruling.

“The Court of Justice of the EU continues to fail to protect Muslim women from structural and intersectional forms of discrimination” said  Julie Pascoët, ENAR’s Senior Advocacy Officer. “Again, the court doesn’t take into account the disproportionate impact that companies’ policies prohibiting religious signs have on Muslim women as a result of racial and sexist prejudices against them.”

Judgment sets precedent for other cases

The ECJ’s ruling gives national courts in all of the EU’s 27 member states the legal power to rule similarly in cases of employers demanding women remove their headscarves.

It is a reaffirmation of a judgment which was delivered by ECJ judges in 2017 in a case regarding the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace.

The two cases which were brought before the court this time related to women who had decided to start wearing the hijab after they had returned to work following parental leave.

Neither woman was wearing one when she was hired.

The first case related to a woman in Hamburg who was working in a centre for children with special needs who was suspended twice for not removing her hijab and given a formal warning.

In the second case, the woman was working at Germany’s Mueller Drugstore chain and was taken off customer-facing duties for refusing to remove her headscarf.

The court ruled that the woman was not discriminated against as the employer was able to prove they forced other workers to remove religious symbols like Christian cross necklaces.

Hijab bans have been a contentious issue in Germany for many years although discussions around islamophobia are not yet playing a major role in the run up to elections this year to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor.

In neighbouring France, President Emmanuel Macron has been widely accused of stoking tensions through his “enlightened Islam” campaign which he insists is about stamping out radicalisation.

French debates about the hijab started in 2004, when a French judge ruled that a similar need for “neutrality” was a justifiable reason for sacking a daycare worker in a private creche.

EU countries have varied sets of laws and rules on headscarves.

Children in Austria under the age of 10 are not allowed to wear them to school for instance.

Decisions like this new one from the ECJ do appear to contradict a legal ruling from the European Court of Human Rights which stipulated in 2013 wearing a cross at work is a fundamental right.

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